Southern Poverty Law Center sues to block Alabama Accountability Act

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A map at a Southern Poverty Law Center press conference shows the location of middle schools listed as failing in Alabama.  The SPLC filed suit against the law on Monday, August 18, 2013.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman)

A map at a Southern Poverty Law Center press conference shows the location of middle schools listed as failing in Alabama. The SPLC filed suit against the law on Monday, August 18, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman)

The Southern Poverty Law Center Monday morning filed suit in federal court to enjoin implementation of the Alabama Accountability Act, saying it does not extend its benefits equally to all students in schools designated as failing.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight Black Belt elementary and middle school students, aged 5 to 14, says that the plaintiffs cannot afford private school tuition, even with the tax credits and scholarships extended under the law. The suit also says that even if they could afford it, there are no participating private schools available in the area, nor is transportation to other schools available.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said at a press conference Monday the law created “two classes of students” in the state. By diverting money from the Education Trust Fund to tax credits or scholarships, Cohen said, the effect of the law would be to make schools listed as failing worse.

“It will siphon away millions of dollars from public schools and not help the failing ones,” he said. “It will make the failing ones worse than they are today.”

The suit names Gov. Robert Bentley, State Schools Superintendent Tommy Bice, Revenue Commissioner Julie Magee and Comptroller Thomas White as defendants. In a statement released Monday afternoon, Bentley did not comment directly on the allegations in the lawsuit, but also stressed provisions in the Act which allow schools to apply for waivers from certain laws governing schools.

“We have Torchbearer Schools that are doing very well,” Bentley said in the statement. “These schools are not wealthy. But they have developed the ideas and approaches that are needed to help their students overcome challenges and succeed.”

The governor’s statement did not mention the tax credits or scholarship granting organizations in the law. Bentley pushed for a two-year delay on the tax credits in the last Legislative session, a delay that was rejected by lawmakers. The lawsuit does not address the law’s flexibility components.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who was the driving force behind the tax credit portion of the law, said in a statement that it “made no sense” to challenge the law on the grounds that it limited options.

“This is more of the same from those who would rather maintain the status quo,” said the statement from Marsh, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit. “We will continue working to make sure students and parents in failing schools have options to receive a quality education.”

The Accountability Act was passed in February amid chaotic scenes in the Alabama Senate and amended later in the session. It creates a definition of a “failing school” as one that has been in the bottom six percent of reading and math scores for three of the preceding six years through 2017; after that, schools will be evaluated on a grading system under development by the Alabama Department of Education.

Students in a failing school can opt to transfer to a non-failing school in their own district if they so choose, or one outside their district if the outside district agrees to accept transfers. The families of the students could also apply for a tax credit, worth over $3,500 a year, applicable to the cost of private school tuition. Students who qualify would also be able to apply for scholarships from groups called scholarship-granting organizations to assist with tuition.

Mariah Russaw, a Barbour County resident whose 12-year-old grandson is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said at the press conference she wanted her grandson to get “the best possible education he could get.”

“I want every child that’s in a failing school to be able to finish school and get the opportunity I didn’t get, to get an education for themselves,” she said. “My grandson needs to stay where he is, because I don’t have the transportation to get him to another school.”

– posted by Brian Lyman (updated at 1:04 p.m.)

 

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